“It was one of the most moving pieces of music I'd heard. It hit me in a hard way... Instantly, I knew it was the best thing I'd ever been part of": How I Can’t Make You Love Me links Bonnie Raitt, George Michael, Prince, Adele, Bon Iver and Bruce Hornsby

Bonnie Raitt, George Michael, Adele, Bon Iver
(Image credit: Tammie Arroyo/Variety via Getty Images, Samir Hussein/Redferns via Getty Images, Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Matthew Baker/Getty Images)

The story of I Can’t Make You Love Me, a song that was first recorded by Bonnie Raitt in 1991, is a long one. Never a number one hit, it’s nonetheless considered a classic, and has a tale that involves everyone from George Michael and Prince to Adele, Bruce Hornsby and Bon Iver.

The greatest credit, though, should go to Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, the two Nashville songwriters who penned I Can’t Make You Love Me. Reid’s background was as a talented college footballer, but he always dreamed of being a writer. Discussing the origins of I Can’t Make You Love Me With Top 2000 a gogo, he said: “There was an article in the newspaper about a guy. He lost his wife and he lost his family and he got himself in trouble and the phrase was ‘well, you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t’. 

“One day I had taken my kids to school. I came back and sat at the piano, and that whole first music and first verse… you start playing and imaging this man’s life. And him saying ‘I’ve tried - I can’t make her love me. There’s nothing I can do to make her love me’. Out something comes and you feel an emotion which is…true.”

Mike Reid - I Can’t Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt) | Het verhaal achter het nummer - YouTube Mike Reid - I Can’t Make You Love Me (Bonnie Raitt) | Het verhaal achter het nummer - YouTube
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Speaking to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2017, Reid said that, prior to that, all he and Shamblin had was the first couple of lines of the chorus, and that they intended to write I Can’t Make You Love Me as an uptempo bluegrass song. “We thought: that has the aroma of cashable cheques to it,” he quipped.

“Fortunately the song Gods were watching over Allen and I and they weren’t giving us any words,” he added, so they put it away and worked on something else. 

After coming up with those first couple of lines a the piano, though, Reid realised that they might relate to what he and Shamblin had been working on some time ago. “So I called Allen, he came over and… my memory is it took us a couple of days [to finish it].”

Speaking to the Nashville Tennessean, Shamblin recalls that “we'd worked on this song for more than six months. One day, [Reid] said, 'Come up to the living room,' where his piano was. He sat down and started playing this melody, and it was one of the most moving pieces of music I'd heard. I mean, it hit me in a hard way... Instantly, I knew it was the best thing I'd ever been a part of."

Who should be the one to sing it, though? “When I demoed I Can’t Make You Love Me I thought Bette Midler, Linda Rondstat or Bonnie [Raitt],” says Mike Reid. “Those were the the three - I sent it to Bonnie and she didn’t jump up and down and say ‘oh my God!’, you know? She didn’t do that - she called me and we talked and she said ‘would you mind letting me live with this?’ And then eventually she listened and got the song and so we just happened to have the perfect singer at that time.”

The recording, though, wasn’t all plain sailing. The record was produced by Raitt and Don Was, with Bruce Hornsby on piano. And, as Was remembers it, there was a certain amount of creative tension.

“Bruce would play it and Bonnie would say ‘no, listen to the demo again,’” says Mike Reid. “And Bruce was just very - this is the story I got from Don - resistant. And Don said ‘no, no, no: Bruce, listen to the demo’. And finally he said, ‘why don’t you get him [Reid] out here?’ and left the studio.

“And then he cooled - cooler heads prevailed - and he came back and made it. It’s essentially the [piano] line that we wrote, but he made it Bruce Hornsby. He made it his.”

Raitt’s version was well received, and hit number 18 on the US Billboard Hot 100. In 1992, she and Hornsby performed it together at the Grammy Awards ceremony.

To become a standard, though, a song needs to be covered by other artists, and I Can’t Make You Love Me’s next lease of life came in 1996, when George Michael included it in his MTV Unplugged set, paying tribute to Raitt during the broadcast. He would go on to release the track as part of the Older EP, in 1997, when it reached number three in the UK singles chart.

George Michael - I Can't Make You Love Me (Live) - YouTube George Michael - I Can't Make You Love Me (Live) - YouTube
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Great minds clearly think alike, because Prince also decided to record the song in 1996. His strangely listless version - inevitably, rechristened I Can't Make U Love Me - appears on Emancipation, the sprawling triple album he released after extracating himself from his contract with Warner Bros. It's hardly a disaster, but not Prince's finest moment, either, and it pales in comparison to Michael's version.

More covers followed, but I Can’t Make You Love Me’s next big year came in 2011, when we got new and contrasting versions from Adele and Bon Iver. Adele’s first performance of the song  - which she called “perfect in every single way” - came during her appearance at the iTunes Music Festival, and she also sang it at the Royal Albert Hall during the recording of her live album.

Adele - I Can't Make You Love Me (Live At The Royal Albert Hall) - YouTube Adele - I Can't Make You Love Me (Live At The Royal Albert Hall) - YouTube
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"It makes me really, really happy and really, really devastated and depressed at the same time,” she said of the song prior to that performance. “It makes me think of my fondest and best times in my life, and it makes me think of the worst as well, and combined, probably, is a recipe for disaster, but I do love this song. It's just fucking stunning."

Although Bon Iver’s initial cover didn’t get an official release - another recording made at Air Studios did - Justin Vernon’s fragile take on the song has also proved to be incredibly popular, racking up millions of views on YouTube and elsewhere. And, in a kind of full circle moment, Bon Iver have also performed it live with none other that Bruce Hornsby.

What’s telling is that, like all the other covers we mentioned here, Bon Iver’s doesn’t stray too far from the original. This is a song to be treasured and handled carefully by the artist rather than tinkered with. 

That said, there are always subtle differences in the interpretations. “When a great singer sings it, they find another sweet spot in there,” says Mike Reid. “They make it their own.”

As for why the song continues to connect with both artists and fans, Reid says, “I think everyone knows what it feels like to want someone who doesn’t want you. This is true to the human experience of being alive.”

I Can’t Make You Love Me and its co-creator can also teach us a valuable lesson about songwriting itself. “I, for a long time, made the mistake of believing the ideas were in me, that I was a writer and so the ideas needed to come from me,” admits Reid. “The ideas are not in me - the ideas are in the world.

“What I’ve learned is, slow myself down enough so that you an observe these unbelievable things that are in the world. That has helped to sustain me as a writer, to realise it’s not in me - it depends on my powers of getting out of my own way and observing the rest of the world. I think a lot of art or creative material is to remind us what is right under our noses. And we forget. Or we lose touch with it."

Ben Rogerson
Deputy Editor

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.